How Ottawa residents took care of each other when no one else did

Lack of immediate action to end ‘Freedom Convoy’ occupation spurred network of mutual aid, defiance in Canada’s capital.

A counter-protester holds a sign outside Parliament in Ottawa
Ottawa residents said the 'Freedom Convoy' protesters honked their horns incessantly, harassed people in the streets, and created a sense of fear across the city [File: Lars Hagberg/Reuters]

Ottawa, Canada – Zexi Li says she begged the city for help.

But after her complaints went unheeded for days, the 21-year-old resident of downtown Ottawa decided to take matters into her own hands – and stand up to the hundreds of disruptive, anti-government protesters occupying the streets outside her home.

“Of course, I recognised the very obvious concern for safety and what putting my name in opposition to these people would do, but I know the kind of person I am,” Li told Al Jazeera. “I knew I had the ability to take this on.”

Li is the named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against members of the so-called “Freedom Convoy”, which landed in Ottawa in late January to protest a cross-border vaccine mandate for truckers. Convoy participants and organisers, who included some white nationalist and far-right activists, occupied the streets of Canada’s capital for three weeks, demanding an end to all coronavirus curbs in the country and the fall of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.

The lawsuit successfully secured a court injunction ordering the truck drivers to stop honking their horns, a tactic they used for days in the heart of the city, sowing a sense of fear as local, provincial, and federal authorities did little to remove the group from downtown.

That widespread feeling that authorities had failed to prepare for the convoy’s arrival in Ottawa – and to quickly respond when it became clear participants sought to stay and were making life difficult in the city centre – pushed many local residents to act.

Li says she was motivated by a love for her community, which was being subjected to levels of noise that often reached above 100 decibels inside peoples’ homes – a level she described as “torturous” – and was even louder on the street. Prolonged exposure to anything above 70dB can cause hearing damage, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The police and really even the city gaslit all of us residents, saying that their operation was successful, that this [occupation] was peaceful, that there was nothing wrong with what was going on,” Li says. “I wanted to help. I just so desperately wanted to help my community, my neighbours, because I love them.”

Mutual support

Li was not alone. As the trucker occupation of Ottawa dragged on, forums and message boards sprung up online, and people offered to walk each other to or from work safely, to fetch groceries, or to bring elderly neighbours to medical or other appointments.

Roisin West, a local community organiser and experienced cook, began preparing and delivering daily meals for residents too afraid to leave their homes, alongside a makeshift group of other volunteer chefs and drivers.

“We came together, and we created a weekly schedule – so who would take point cooking every day,” West told Al Jazeera. While police cleared the convoy protesters from the downtown area starting on February 18, officers put up barricades and maintained a massive presence on the streets outside Parliament Hill, fuelling a continued sense of fear for some residents. So, West and the others kept cooking and making deliveries.

Meal requests have been coordinated through Instagram and local community groups, West explained, and clients came from all sectors of society – though many requests came from those most fearful of venturing outside, such as racialised people, disabled people, or members of the LGBTQ community.

“Those are the people who have specifically said, ‘I haven’t left my house in 10 days, I am running out of food, I don’t feel safe outside.’ And those are the same people now saying, ‘There are so many police outside, I can’t leave my house safely,'” West explained.

A police car is seen behind a barricade in Ottawa, Canada
Police began clearing out the ‘Freedom Convoy’ protest on February 18, putting fences up around a secured area in Ottawa’s downtown core [File: Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

‘It’s up to us’

Despite the widespread safety concerns, when the convoy occupation was at its height, some thought it was important to try to reclaim the streets of Ottawa.

James Hutt, a local writer and labour organiser, helped organise a rally in mid-February after he said it became clear that “no one was coming to save us.” About 4,000 people marched in a part of the city where a direct confrontation with the convoy was unlikely, he said, to demand an end to the occupation.

“We knew that one march and rally was not going to change everything; it was not going to get rid of the convoy or some of the very far-right, racist rhetoric that its leaders espoused, but it was a stepping stone,” Hutt told Al Jazeera.

In fact, a day after the march, Hutt was among a few thousand Ottawa residents who, during the course of the day, succeeded in blocking a row of pick-up trucks and other vehicles from reaching the central convoy protest. Their act of civil disobedience has been dubbed “The Battle of Billings Bridge”, after the area where it took place.

“This was the first time that people were really coming back into the streets and taking things into their own hands,” Hutt told Al Jazeera. After several hours, residents allowed the vehicles to turn around, but only after the drivers took down any flags or pro-convoy insignia. They also had to turn over jerry cans filled with gas that they were bringing to resupply convoy participants in the city centre.

People take part in a counter-protest against the 'Freedom Convoy' in Ottawa
Ottawa residents blocked a small convoy of supporters of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ on February 13 [Chris Helgren/Reuters]

“It was amazing, it was joyous. There was just such a level of energy and celebration, and people coming together from all walks and from all neighbourhoods in the city,” Hutt said. “One of the real powerful and important lessons that came out of these past weeks is that safety is about community and numbers of people standing together.

“It’s not the police, it’s not politicians … It’s up to us.”

Push for answers

At first, Ottawa police said they had chosen to avoid ticketing and towing vehicles in the convoy “so as not to instigate confrontations”. On February 15, Chief Peter Sloly – who had earlier said “there may not be a police solution” to the protest – resigned amid criticism of the force’s response.

Days later, after Trudeau invoked emergency powers to help disperse the demonstrators, the Ottawa Police Service moved to end the occupation in coordination with federal and provincial law enforcement agencies. Big rigs and other vehicles were towed away and nearly 200 people were arrested, including several convoy organisers.

But even after the protesters were pushed off the streets of downtown Ottawa, many residents say a sense of fear still hangs in the air, while any trust they may have had in the authorities remains deeply shaken.

Paul Champ, a lawyer involved in Li’s class-action lawsuit, told Al Jazeera that the $240m (306 million Canadian dollars) claim on behalf of downtown residents, as well as businesses and workers who lost income due to the convoy, is moving forward against the organisers, participants and anyone who donated money to the movement as of February 4.

“It’s our view those individuals who donated at that time would have known full well what was happening in Ottawa … the donors at that stage were complicit,” said Champ, explaining that evidence currently is being collected to prove mental, physical, and economic harms. They will then move to certify the class-action, most likely in the summer or autumn, he added.

The convoy, Champ stressed, “was targeted at hurting the people of Ottawa and they wanted to use the people of Ottawa as a hostage to try to attract political attention from government leaders, and that’s what made this protest very, very different – and it’s going to take a long time for the people of Ottawa to recover from this.”

Key that in that recovery will be understanding exactly how a group of anti-government protesters were able to paralyse the heart of Canada’s capital for as long as it did, said Li.

“At the municipal level, they failed us. The provincial level, they failed us. The federal level, even, while they came through for us in the end, they really failed us because of how long this went on,” she told Al Jazeera. “We need answers as to how this happened, we need answers as to why this happened, [and] we need answers as to why decisions were made and why there was so much inaction from all levels.”

Source: Al Jazeera